Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Good times and bad, demand remains for service

2007 called awful year for boat market: Seen a bunch of headlines like this one lately?

As the spring progresses, it seems like I see increasing predictions that the marine industry is just barely afloat. Sales are down, numbers are down, traffic is down (except for the press releases that declare just the opposite.) But how sensitive is the marine assistance industry to the whims of the overall boat market?

I'm not convinced that our industry is at the mercy of new boat sales. New boaters often enter the world of recreational boating with a purchase of a used boat; sort of as a way to test the waters and see if they line it. What this means is that a majority of new boat sales are made to buyers who are already boaters- they are just getting a different boat.

If I'm correct, then new boat sales aren't really a direct indication that more people are entering the boat market, and therefore a drop in new boat sales doesn't necessarily mean less boating activity. It only means that there are fewer new boats out on the water, which is a good thing if you are primarily in the hourly towing business (verses the annual membership business).

What drives the need for assistance? Inexperienced boaters and poorly maintained boats. As the economy gets a little tight, a boater may decide to defer some maintenance, or take a shorter trip, but if he could afford to go boating two years ago, I don't see that the overall situation has made it unlikely that he can't go boating today.

A little less money on maintenance should result in more breakdowns, which keeps the towboats busy. While this may put some additional pressure on franchise membership towers like SeaTow, more boats breaking down should also help convince more boaters to join or renew their memberships, which is to the benefit of the entire industry.

I spoke to a few towers this past week, and everyone seems to holding their breath waiting to see if the dire predictions are true. But so far, most towers report that "our case load is right in line with the past few years."

The demand for assistance remains, even as the new boat markets suffer.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Wreck removal continues to gain traction

Regular reader Dave Delano of Vessel Assist San Francisco Bay brought this to my attention:

Salvors Welcome New Nairobi Wreck Removal Convention

Times have changed and the main motivation for wreck removal today is often concern for the environment, rather than any threat to safety of navigation. We now have a new international instrument which recognises both priorities, in
full measure.

So far, this doesn't pertain to small vessels, but it will probably become some kind of model for the future of wreck removal in the USA.

Monday, May 21, 2007



PORTLAND, OREGON – An Oregon charter fishing boat captain was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment today in federal court in Portland. Richard J. Oba, of Winchester Bay, was the owner and captain of the Sydney Mae II, a 38 foot boat Oba used to conduct fishing charters. On September 19, 2005, Oba steered the boat into dangerous waters after being warned to stay away by the U. S. Coast Guard. The boat was struck by large wave and sunk off the Umpqua River Bar, killing three passengers. Oba had pled guilty to three counts of Seaman’s Manslaughter, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1115.

I don't know about you, but this scares me a little. Not that this captain was in the right (he probably wasn't), but I really don't like the idea that the USCG can play Monday Morning Quarterback, and put a guy in jail on a "I told ya so!" clause. IF that one wave hadn't come along, this would not be a headline.

Here is what I wonder: is the reverse true? If the USCG says its ok to go, and something goes wrong, can I sue?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Longest and Shortest commute to work

When I owned Vessel Assist Del Rey, I kept my live-aboard trawler (Water Torture) right across the dock from my primary towboat Reliant. I used to joke that I had the shortest commute to work of anyone living in Los Angeles - eight feet from home to work.

Now, I live in South Carolina, and work in Rhode Island, which makes for a much longer commute - about 800 miles. Fortunately, I only have to make one round trip each year. For the past four years, I made the trip on the ICW aboard the Water Torture, so not only was it a long distance, but it must qualify as one of the slowest commutes on record - about a month to get to work, about a month to get home. This year, I drove up so it only took a few days.

With all this commuting, I haven't had time to finish my next post...I'll have it up in a few more days.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Do I Hear $300,000?

Charlie from Lake Ozark BUS sends this interesting eBay link....

One thing that I found intersting was this quote:

We are not selling towing membership and we are not affiliated in any way with the nationwide SEA-TOW or TowBoat US

This is even printed in block letters to get the reader's attention. Do the folks at Neptune towing feel that affilitation with a nationwide network would somehow detract from the value of their towing and salvage business?

Sunday, May 6, 2007


NASBLA...sounds like Naz-Blah. However, if you are wondering about new regulations, NASBLA is a name you should become familiar with. The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators Here is small snip from their very extensive website:

Since 1992, NASBLA has had a Model Act for Charter Boat Safety that can be applied to any vessels carrying passengers for hire. This act is intended to provide for the regulation, inspection, and licensing of charter boats; protect the safety and welfare of persons using them; authorize the administering department to prescribe standards and promulgate rules; provide for the seizure and condemnation of certain vessels; and impose duties on certain insurance carriers. In 2006, the model act’s provisions were reviewed and updated and adopted by the NASBLA membership on Sept. 27, 2006. At the same time, NASBLA adoped a set of model administrative rules to accompany the Model Act for Charter Boat Safety. In October, NASBLA co-sponsored with the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Coast Guard a training seminar for state officials: Passenger Vessel Safety on Sole State Waters. The technical program focused on "A Model Passenger Vessel Safety Program For State Regulators" by looking at policies and practices gained from more than 50 years of experience in regulating small passenger vessels by the U.S. Coast Guard and voluntary safety organizations, such as the Passenger Vessel Association.

This sounds like a great way for C-PORT to pursue the issue of local agency competition. Somewhere deep in the archives of C-PORT is a document called "Marine Police Standing Operating Proceedure". Lets update that document and push NASBLA to adopt it as the "Model Act" for standard operating proceedures in state and local authorities. Any volunteers to head up that battle? Guys in Southern California should be all over this idea...

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Public Safety Lights

Most towers use a Public Safety Light (PSL) on their towboats. The most common is probably a rotating light with red and amber bulbs that spin around inside a clear bowl. I've had a few debates with folks about the rules and legalities of these light, and the alternatives, like strobe lights. One individual insisted that a PSL must be rotating, so that it can't be confused with with a flashing navaid light, like a flashing red buoy. So, here is the actual 33 CFR 88.12 as cut and pasted from here

§ 88.12 Public Safety Activities(a) Vessels engaged in government sanctioned public safety activities, and commercial vessels performing similar functions, may display an alternately flashing red and yellow light signal. This identification light signal must be located so that it does not interfere with the visibility of the vessel's navigation lights. The identification light signal may be used only as an identification signal and conveys no special privilege. Vessels using the identification light signal during public safety activities must abide by the Inland Navigation Rules, and must not presume that the light or the exigency gives them precedence or right of way. (b) Public safety activities include but are not limited to patrolling marine parades, regattas, or special water celebrations; traffic control; salvage; firefighting; medical assistance; assisting disabled vessels; and search and rescue.

"Alternately flashing red and yellow"; could a rotating light be construed as alternating flashing? Sure, why not. Also, most of the PSLs I've seen are red and amber, not red and yellow, because as I understand it, yellow PAR bulbs are hard to find.

I have also seen plenty of flashing lights, even strobe lights on some towboats. Are these other lights in violation of the Rules? What the actual rules say about lights that aren't required is pretty vague: (Rule 20b)

The Rules concerning lights shall be complied with from sunset to sunrise, and during such times no other lights shall be exhibited, except such lights which cannot be mistaken for the lights specified in these Rules or do not impair their visibility or distinctive character, or interfere with the keeping of a proper look-out.

So, a couple of thoughts here. First of all, as I interpret the above paragraph, if it is daylight and unrestricted visibility, then the rules say you can pretty much show any damn lights you want. During such times when the rules shall be complied with, you can't display any lights that could be mistaken for other specified lights. So, a red and amber rotating light should be perfectly legal. And, so should an alternating pair of red/amber flashing LED strobe type lights. Or red and yellow if you can find them.

Just remind your operators that the PSL provides their zero-nada-nothing in terms of right of way (there is no "right of way", actually. I'll post more on that soon).

How many of us forget to turn the darn thing off? I solved that one on my towboats by installing a $2.00 flashing 12volt LED (fits in a 1/4" hole) in a prominent spot on the dash board, usually right next to the tachometer. Wire the LED into the same circut as the PSL.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Where's the Bar?

No, not that bar. I'm talking about the proverbial bar, that lofty goal we strive to attain. When someone says "BigToe has really raised the bar for the rest of the industry," we understand that statement means that the rest of us now have a new benchmark against which we measure ourselves.

So, who sets the bar for your company? Is it the customers? If you are simply meeting the needs of your customers, then you are letting them set your service goals. Your company is doomed to never exceed your customers expectations, because your measuring stick is only as high as the customer can imagine. If you are to really dazzle them, you have to demonstrate that you hold your company to higher standards than even they do. You set the bar.

For many of you, I suspect the bar is set by what is in your network contract. Standards for boat appearance, response times, hours of availability. Just play by the rules and try to make a buck. But those rules are like the minumum Coast Guard Standards for PFDs - the levels we don't dare go below. Would you trust your life to those $4 "lifejackets" at Wal-Mart that are "USCG Approved"? The same is true for ACAPT standards. Those standards are not some lofty goal one struggles to achieve, they are the starting point on which to build.

Or, do you measure your success by comparing yourself to your local competition? Do you breathe a sigh of relief when he slacks off, because now you can relax? Do you feel that as long as your service is just as good as his, you are competing? Like the kids say nowadays: NOT! If all you can do is imitate the competition, then you might as well sell your boats and go work for that guy. If you are going define your standards in comparison to his, then your service will never truly exceed his. The point of a competition is to win, not merely keep up.

In a competitive service business like marine assistance, company owners have to keep raising their own bar, relentlessly striving to improve their services as measured against their last job, not as measured against their competitor's last failure.